By any measure, writer-performer Sarah Jones' Bridge & Tunnel skillfully captures the zeitgeist at this midpoint in the first decade of the 21st century.
The Tony Awards Administration Committee originally deemed the piece eligible in the Special Theatrical Event category, created in 2001 to recognize "a live theatrical production that is not a play or a musical." As there was little competition this year, however, the committee has fittingly decided to award a special Tony to honor Jones' solo work, which opened on Feb. 19 at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
In the space of 90 minutes, Jones pulls off an outstanding tour de force, bringing to life no fewer than 14 characters, including men and women of differing ages and ethnic backgrounds. She establishes the tone and context for the piece, however, through just one recurring character: Mohammed Ali, a diffident Pakistani-born accountant-poet who hosts a night of multicultural poetry at the Bridge & Tunnel Theatre, a mythical venue located in a Queens, N.Y. café. The occasion is a meeting of IAMAPOETTOO, an unwieldy acronym for Immigrant and Multiculturalist American Poets or Enthusiasts Traveling Toward Optimistic Openness. The group is the brainchild of the affable Ali, who enthusiastically promotes an all-embracing and hopeful philosophy that everyone is a poet with something special to share.
With chameleonic ease and minimal costume changes—a jacket here, a shawl there—Jones impersonates a whole parade of immigrant New Yorkers who come up onstage to make their artistic contribution or to simply share a story. With telling gestures and spot-on accents and speech rhythms, Jones undergoes a series of constantly surprising and compelling transformations: One moment she's Mrs. Levine, a Long Island grandmother who recalls earlier times when anti-Semitism prompted the same racist responses that new immigrants face today; the next, she's Bao Viet Dinh, a brash Vietnamese-American slam poet who refuses to be stereotyped, even by well-meaning liberals. With the deft strokes of a consummate quick-sketch artist, Jones conjures a wheelchair-bound Mexican immigrant worker, a Chinese-American mother, a Jamaican performance artist, a shy 11-year-old Latino girl, even a hyperactive black rapper.
Given her amazing vocal dexterity and flair for accents, its no wonder Jones caught the eye of actor Meryl Streep, no slouch herself when it comes to characters, accents, and transformations. Streep caught Jones performing at a benefit for the international human rights organization Equality Now and quickly became her champion. Indeed, Streep helped co-produce the initial engagement of Bridge & Tunnel, which ran for seven months Off-Broadway at the Culture Project in 2005. Even as plans for a limited Broadway transfer were set into motion, Jones took her work to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, run by Tony Taccone, her director, for further fine-tuning. Following a warm reception from critics and audiences on Broadway, Bridge & Tunnel's original eight-week run has twice been extended.
The popular and critical success of Bridge & Tunnel is not solely due to Jones' prowess at mimicry and character portraiture. It's also a testament to Jones' writing skills and her keen sense of the moment. Although she has been more overtly political in previous work—she successfully sued the Federal Communications Commission, for example, winning a reversal of a censorship ruling against a hip-hop poem recording called "Your Revolution"—Bridge & Tunnel refracts today's news headlines, particularly the hot-button election-year issue of immigration control.
Even before the series of spoken-word performances begins at the fictional Bridge & Tunnel café, we learn that host Ali is to face a troublesome encounter with federal authorities within a few days. While he attempts to brush it off with one of his characteristic bad puns ("What, I am now hiding the limericks of mass destruction?"), everyone knows that for a Pakistani immigrant in post-Sept. 11 New York City, an interview with government authorities is not to be taken lightly. Juan Jose, a disabled worker from Mexico, offers a poignant story about the horrors of crossing the border. Rose Aimee, a Haitian immigrant, invokes blessings on an America enriched by foreign cultures and a rainbow population while pointedly referring to the real-estate bigot who seems to have forgotten his own immigrant heritage. Mrs. Ling, the Chinese-American mother, starts to relate a familiar tale about having to grapple with a lesbian daughter; the story's real punch and poignancy come when the mother reveals she is to deliver a speech about the sanctity of family bonds to the immigration authorities, who are soon to deport her daughter's lover because the woman's visa expired.
Bridge & Tunnel has arrived on Broadway at a most opportune moment: Jones offers a paean to a pluralistic vision of America that some view as too dangerous—or, at the very least, too messy to uphold any longer. The 32-year-old Jones gives voice to the funny and also to the recognizably human, a gathering of multicultural, multiethnic poets sharing common bonds and individual stories in that small café in Queens. By giving Jones a special Tony, the American theatre as a whole heralds the arrival of a promising new talent.